New overall leader Cadel Evans of Australia celebrates on the podium of the 20th stage of the Tour de France cycling race, an individual time trial over 42.5 kilometers (26.4 miles) starting and finishing in Grenoble, Alps region, France, Saturday July 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
GRENOBLE, France (AP) — Cadel Evans has been around at the top of cycling for a long time, but until now he's been better known for the things he didn't achieve than the ones he did.
His soon-to-be-completed victory in the Tour de France catapults him from cycling's man of near-misses to one of the great sporting stars — a position he already holds in his native Australia.
Even Australian prime minister Julia Gillard took the time to tweet her backing for the 34-year-old cyclist before the decisive time trial on Saturday: "Good luck tonight. Australia is behind you."
Although he has a high profile in his home country, many Australians find him a bit of a mystery.
"He's very personal — he has his own views on life and politics," said Australian cycling coach Dave Sanders, who has known Evans for many years. "He's quiet, not in your face ... but he's very strong-willed in where he wants to go, what he wants to do."
Born in the tiny town of Katherine in Australia's Northern Territory in 1977, Evans started cycling on a tiny BMX bike when he was 2. At the age of 8, he was kicked in the head by a horse and nearly died, but he survived and began competing in mountain biking when he was 14.
"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete," Evans says on his website. "Physically, I am completely unsuitable for almost all Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports require speed and/or size."
He switched from mountain biking to road cycling in 2001 and began his long relationship with Italian coach Aldo Sassi. Evans choked up Saturday as he described how he wished Sassi — who died in December — could have been there to see the victory.
The victory in the Tour has been a long time coming. He finished eighth in 2005 and fourth in 2006. A year later he was runner-up to Alberto Contador by less than a minute. He started the 2008 event as the favorite, but crashed and was unable to beat Carlos Sastre. He came second again.
"Everyone was so convinced that I was going to win it. I thought, well hang on, because there is a lot that can go wrong," Evans said. "I suffered so much in that Tour through injuries, bruising, lost of skin and so on."
After a poor Tour in 2009, Evans went on to what was until this week his biggest success — he became world road race champion.
That saw him riding in the world champion's rainbow jersey in the 2010 Tour, and he was going well. But on the same stage that he took the yellow jersey, he suffered a crash that left him with a hairline fracture on his elbow. Though he completed the Tour, he was not competitive and finished some 50 minutes behind Contador, the winner.
He sees the victory this year as the culmination of the support that he has had from the new, ambitious BMC team, and from the late Sassi.
"I think that started with a little idea of my manager and a few key people behind BMC back when everyone doubted me and no one wanted to know me back in August 2008," he says.
"When it's me on the mountain when I'm alone it's my legs, but the guys who got me there, (Marcus) Burghardt, (George) Hincapie, particularly on the flat were just incredible. The team really delivered me to this point to get me in this position today, not just the riders, everyone behind the scenes as well."
Evans is married to Chiara Passerini, an Italian pianist and music teacher, and lists music as one of his passions, along with literature. He is a big fan of the cartoon character Tintin, saying "he's the only cyclist who gets a framed picture on my bedroom wall."
Evans backs a number of causes, in particular supporting the Free Tibet movement, as well as supporting the foundation set up by swimmer Ian Thorpe that promotes literacy among Aboriginal communities.
Sanders said Evans doesn't want celebrity.
"It's not his go at all, he's a private person ... he's from a fairly humble background and that's still a part of him," he said. "Mind you, he can handle it a lot better than he used to. Also, I think he does enjoy the fact that he's getting the respect now."